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North Country trail: The Minnesota national park you've never heard of

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Jim Rakness pushes an all-terrain lawn mower down the North Country National Scenic Trail. The self-propelled mower is an essential tool for cutting back the summer plants that rapidly grow over the trail. So is the mosquito netting.
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BECKER COUNTY — The North Country National Scenic Trail offers a 4,600-mile trek from eastern New York to North Dakota.

Established in 1980, the 7-state trail begins in the Adirondack Mountains, winds through the Great Lakes, comes up the North Shore through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and wanders out onto the plains of North Dakota.

According to the National Park Service, more than 200 different public agencies and private interests participate in the oversight of the trail from beginning to end, including several in Minnesota.

This public-private partnership hearkens back to the earliest days of the National Park Service, which turns 100 this month, when the oversight of national parks was an ad-hoc endeavor.

Trail volunteers are North Country's primary creators and caretakers. They worked under the guidance of the National Park Service to build the trail, and they continue to maintain it, section by section.

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Karen Stenburg and Jim and Jeri Rakness have been volunteering here for years. All are retired, and all are members of the Laurentian Lakes chapter of the North Country Trail Association. They helped build — and now maintain — the trail as it wends through Minnesota's Becker and Clearwater counties.

Stenburg moved back to Becker County, where she grew up, after retiring from teaching in Alaska. She has worked on the trail for 10 years, during which time she helped finish building the nearby sections of the trail.

For her, it's all a labor of love — and setting a legacy.

"If we didn't love it we wouldn't be out here," she said with a grin. "We hope it is something we can pass on to future generations — the love of the outdoors and the love of being active."

At the North Country trail's inception, the National Park Service worked with volunteers to determine a route. In Becker County, the Laurentian Lakes volunteers surveyed the trail route and engineered around the obstacles they encountered along the way.

When the trail section was first built, a Conservation Corps group dug the treadway — the ground that made up the walking path — in order to provide a lasting foundation for the trail. The changes the Corps makes to the ground should inhibit large vegetation from growing along the path.

In the wetland sections of the trail, volunteers surveyed, prepared and built a puncheon — a type of boardwalk — which raises nearly 1,000 feet of trail above the swampy ground. Volunteers carried the wood and materials in by hand,with some assistance from a 'power sled,' a motorized wagon.

The Laurentian Lakes team's section of the trail traverses Itasca State Park, the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and the land of many private landowners.

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Volunteers typically mow the trail twice a year — in the spring and early fall — but when storms come through with heavy rains or high winds, the trails need to be checked for downed trees and washouts. That's when they wheel in large gas-powered mowers and heavy duty trimmers to cut back the plants and overgrowth that's gotten in the way of the trail.

It's hard work, but it's worth it, Stenberg said.

"We have friends that love to quilt, we have friends that love to garden, but this is better than any of those pursuits," she said.

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